Premier Christy Clark heads into this week's conference of B.C. municipal leaders playing from a position of strength.
At this time last year, she was the unpopular leader of an incumbent government that was presumed to be in its final days. Some of her own candidates were keeping their distance. Reaching out to build new relationships was often an exercise in futility.
But Ms. Clark's upset victory in the May provincial election means that she is unlikely to be upstaged at this year's Union of B.C. Municipalities (UBCM) convention by some guy who last year was expected to be premier by now.
It has to be a nice change for the Premier, after watching some of the B.C. Liberals' usual allies reaching out to the NDP in anticipation of a new regime last spring. Whether it is sitting down with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, as she did this weekend in Vancouver, or with top union leaders last week, Ms. Clark is enjoying more receptive audiences these days.
Municipal leaders will be looking for a demonstration that she won't be a sore winner.
They want a new deal on revenue sharing that will allow them to better absorb looming infrastructure demands. In Metro Vancouver, there is simmering tension over the Clark government's plan for a referendum on transit funding and a new provincial recycling program.
Ms. Clark's objective in the early months of her new mandate is to show she is listening, and that she is willing to work with whoever will advance her economic objectives. Whether she will yield to the concerns of local governments, however, will be the test of the week.
UBCM president Mary Sjostrom, mayor of Quesnel, said her recent meeting with the Premier was positive. Individual mayors may have showed their NDP colours in the past, but they recognize that Ms. Clark is in charge now, she said. "She is the premier and she has the mandate, so folks will have to sit down at the table and work with the sitting government."
Ms. Clark sent a strong signal last week that she is capable of putting the election behind her – at least where there is a common interest. It was her office that reached out to labour leaders, including Jim Sinclair of the B.C. Federation of Labour, which led to a news conference last Monday announcing a co-operative effort to develop jobs and training strategies.
In an interview, Mr. Sinclair acknowledged that joining Ms. Clark on stage was not an easy decision. Labour's traditional alliance with the NDP meant the B.C. Liberal government has rarely brought union bosses into the room. "For us to stand there took something, for her to stand there took something," he said. But to achieve the shared goal of improving skills-training opportunities, he said, "we just don't have any choice."
The tone is changing around Adrian Dix, the NDP Leader, as well.
Mr. Dix had the enthusiastic backing from the labour movement before the election for his skills and training plan. Now, as Mr. Dix prepares to announce this week whether he will resign over his party's unexpected electoral loss, there has been not a whisper of encouragement for him to stay from those same labour partners. He has been granted the time to make a clean exit, but that is all.
Perhaps the most important new relationships, however, are the ones Ms. Clark is seeking to forge outside of B.C. She is heading off in November on another Asian trade mission, this time with no questions hanging over her about her mandate to sell B.C. as a destination for investment.
And her renewed rapport with Alberta's Alison Redford could lead to a pact – which seemed so unlikely a year ago – on meeting British Columbia's terms for pumping Alberta oil to the B.C. coast. An agreement on how to address Ms. Clark's five conditions could be announced as early as October.
If the Premier can bring the federal Conservative government on board as well – and there are considerable hurdles to clear – she will have revised her reputation as a lightweight after her bumbling early forays on the national stage.
But the next step – selling British Columbians on oil pipelines – would be the toughest test of her strength.